On Compassionate Storytelling in Graphic Memoir: Pat Arnow’s "A Death in Chicago, 1972: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and My Family" By Jonathan Garfinkel

Jonathan Garfinkel is a writer whose work has been translated into twelve languages. He is the author of the book of poems Glass Psalms (Turnstone Press, 2005) and the chapbook Bociany (Storks) (KFB, 2017). Garfinkel is currently doing a PhD in Cultural Studies in the field of Medical Humanities at University of Alberta. Find more of his work at jonathan-garfinkel.com. His non-fiction piece      “Diabetes Diary”      appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Jonathan Garfinkel is a writer whose work has been translated into twelve languages. He is the author of the book of poems Glass Psalms (Turnstone Press, 2005) and the chapbook Bociany (Storks) (KFB, 2017). Garfinkel is currently doing a PhD in Cultural Studies in the field of Medical Humanities at University of Alberta. Find more of his work at jonathan-garfinkel.com. His non-fiction piece “Diabetes Diary” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Pat Arnow’s touching account of the death of her father illustrates the power of graphic memoir, showcasing both her talent as illustrator and writer. There is something simple and intimate in the story she tells, as Arnow lets us into the private moment between father and daughter, father and family, and we witness his journey toward death from cancer. The effect is incredibly moving. In part, the form of the graphic memoir allows Arnow to achieve this. In distilling pivotal moments in her father’s end of life journey, her illustrations evoke vulnerability, joy, beauty and love between family members.

Many moments leap out. Early on, Arnow portrays her father’s love for his wife as he sits with her making clay pots. Toward the end, drawings of her father’s eyes – first from afar then moving in closer with each panel until we are left with only a black mass of pupil – leads the reader into the unknown that is death. These moments – singular, familiar - allows the reader to feel the vulnerability the terminally ill and their families experience – it ripples through us. How do we help those we know who are dying, those we love most? Who hasn’t grappled with these impossible questions, mourning the passage of a father’s life?“

“A Death in Chicago” is also a poignant historical reflection on shifting cultural attitudes towards terminal illness. In referencing the landmark work by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, as well as bringing the actual author into the text (who, in 1972, comes to see the family and helps to lobby on behalf of Arnow’s father so he gets what he needs – to go home), we witness firsthand the importance of a compassionate medicine, as well as the vast disjunct between first and third person narratives: the subjective experience of illness as opposed to the objective symptoms of disease. There is still a long way to go in terms of humanizing medical professional attitudes today, but voices like Arnow’s are incredibly important for leading the way toward a broader empathy.

As I continue to write A Diabetes Diary, I know Arnow’s beautiful graphic memoir will leak into my lines. In part I am envious of her ability to tell a story through such well-wrought images. Ultimately, it is her compassionate storytelling that I will take away. Thank you, Pat Arnow, for this moving work.



Jonathan Garfinkel is a writer whose work has been translated into twelve languages. He is the author of the book of poems Glass Psalms (Turnstone Press, 2005) and the chapbook Bociany (Storks) (KFB, 2017). He has written numerous plays including The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret (2004), the Governor-General shortlisted House of Many Tongues (2009) and Cockroach (2015); they have been produced throughout Canada, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. His memoir Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide (2008) was published in five countries to critical acclaim. Jonathan is also an award-winning non-fiction writer and has been anthologized in Cabin Fever: The Best New Canadian Non-Fiction. His first novel, The Altruist, is forthcoming from House of Anansi (2020). Named by the Toronto Star as “one to watch,” Garfinkel is currently doing a PhD in Cultural Studies in the field of Medical Humanities at University of Alberta. Find more of his work at jonathan-garfinkel.com. His non-fiction piece “Diabetes Diary” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.


©2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine